Collecting memories for the future
Two weekends ago I was helping my son move, when I noticed a painting sitting against the wall that I had given him that had hung in my mother's house many years ago. As I looked at it I realized that the back of the painting was breaking through the paper on the frame and the scene on it, obviously a mountain view of the Grand Tetons, was getting duller and duller as dirt accumulated on the canvas.
"Are you going to take this with you," I asked him. He told me he wasn't sure.
"You know my sister and I bought that painting for my mother when I was probably about 10 or 11 years old," I said. "I remember how beautiful it looked in the store when we bought it. I was entranced by that mountain scene. I didn't have any idea at the time that mountain was in Wyoming, but I loved it. Your grandmother loved that painting."
"I didn't know that you had bought it for her," he said. "I'm glad you told me about it. I'll make sure it gets hung up then."
It was a small hint to me that my kids knew much less than I thought they did about my past life with my parents. It also made me think about the situation with my own parents and how few things I really knew about their lives before I came along.
When my father died three years ago I finally inherited all the photo albums and loose photos, documentation on his business and family papers that I hadn't absorbed into my office filing cabinets when my mother had passed away 15 years before. There was a lot more left in his house and various very interesting materials I had never seen popped up as well.
Some things were easy to place; letters to the landlord of the farm my dad and his brothers operated for 50 years, account books with prices for the sale of eggs, cows, hay and grain from the 1940's and various other papers such as the sales receipt from the purchase of 1939 Packard by one of my uncles bought new.
But regardless of how well things were documented and labeled, there was something missing; the direct connection with my parents telling me about each thing. Each item told part of a story, but not all of it. For instance there was recorded in one of the account books the sale of a prize bull to another farmer who lived in of all places Carbon County (despite the fact that my parents lived in Murray in that year of 1947). Since I have been living in this county for almost 20 years it would have been interesting to know to whom they sold that bull and where it went. Who knows, maybe some of the livestock I pass driving through Wellington or Miller Creek is the off spring of that animal.
The point is that if I had known these books and papers existed when my father was alive, I would have gotten him to talk about them and tell me some detail. But now he is gone and so are the memories attached to simple things like this. For me it is a tragedy, a loss, something I can never replace.
With the inheritance of all this stuff I came to the realization that there was so much I never knew about my parents, particularly when it comes to things that happened before I was born.
On a recent trip to Dallas, Texas to visit my sister, I was able to piece together some things I didn't know because she is eight years older than I am and she remembers things I, of course, never knew. But my other sister, who was even older, passed away not long before my father, and her help would have been invaluable. So for the last couple of years I have been trying to piece together my parents lives and put down on paper some of the things they experienced and did.
The baby boomers are now loosing their parents in vast numbers. Yet so many of us are caught in the vice of just living life that we sometimes don't think about what we may be missing in terms of history when our parents are gone. And many of those parents are also losing their memories to diseases that affect the mind. At one point a parent may be lucid and remember the littlest detail of something and the next minute they can't remember their own name. In some ways this is worse than death when it comes to finding out family history because while people with normal minds often can't recall exact details of an experience, people affected by disease sometimes find themselves remembering things that never happened.
That's why those who have parents that are still alive need to work with their parents on what memories they can preserve.
Any kind of recorded history is helpful, but in my estimation, working with our family background, and having interviewed and told the stories of hundreds of people over the years, it is best to use every kind of recorded history a person can find. That includes video, audio, writing and even oral histories. Video and audio give the truth as to the persons story as they tell it orally, but with research added into the stories, the written record can give posterity even more information that can be made into a real story at some point.
But where should a person begin? It can be overwhelming. But I can tell you from experience it is much more overwhelming to look through boxes of unlabeled photos and papers written 70 years ago without someone to give narration to them, than it is to hear the rights story from the horses mouth, so to speak. Here are some ideas for beginning a living parents history project.
â¢Keeping real memory notes for later review. Ask your parent to start to write down key words of memories they have as they live their lives. If you think back about your own life it is hard to recall everything at once, but one day you may be driving down the road or standing in a grocery store and something reminds you of an experience you had at one time. Your parents experience the same thing. Maybe even supply them with a digital audio recorder they can carry around and use to make verbal notes so they don't have to write things down. The note pad or recorder isn't for the whole story, but for key elements and dates so when you review what they have placed there, you can ask questions and have them tell the entire story.
â¢Memory starts. Often when I interview people about their lives, they say they think they haven't done much or have nothing interesting to tell. In all the hundreds of interviews I have conducted with people in my work as a journalist I have only found once or twice that the tale was so dull that I couldn't make a real story out of it. I find that there are a number of ways to get memories to start working when I have someone who seems to be stymied about telling details about their past. I ask them about photos they have sitting around, trophies on the fireplace mantle, or items that are obviously treasured placed around their house. Since they are family you can ask parents to bring out old papers or certificates; you can even get them to let you dig for things.
â¢Photos seem an obvious window to the past, but they can often be misleading. I have photos from the 1920's and 1930's that are unlabeled. Some are very good. Some have my parents in, others they have friends with them in the photos. Some are of people that I have never seen before. Starting in the late 1950's my mother got her first easy-to-use camera and she loved taking photos. These are snapshots from a little brownie camera, but they still capture life as it was. Problem is there are no dates, times, places or even names on many of them. She took hundreds of photos of her flower beds, but I don't know anything about them or when they were taken. Why was it important to her to take these photos? A photographer's motivation is important to know. Suggestion? Spend some time once a month with parents and go through old photos and identify them before it is too late. Get the proper marking pens (ones that don't damage the photos) and write on the back of them. Photos need to be well taken care of too. Use acid free storage systems because many photos have been destroyed by being placed in albums which either damage them or by the glue that has been used to attach them to pages. Best of all digitize as many photos as you can and keep extra copies on CD's or DVD's in a couple of places in case of a disaster. Digitizing is particularly important if the photos are Polaroids or of low grade processing quality. Polaroids from as recent as the 1980's are already beginning to yellow and fade in most people's collections.
Photos will also set off a flood of memories. Remember to at least take notes, and if possible record the stories your parents tell about the photos. Also note in some way which photo started the memory flow.
â¢A more formal way of having parents take notes is to give them a fill-in-the-blank memory book. Many people don't believe they can write anything very well. These books can give them a structure from which to work. Some books focus on various events in life (holidays, marriages, baptisms) while others are more general. The senior who doesn't think they have done much might change their mind if they are told that this could be a valuable thing for the grand kids to have. So when in doubt use grandchildren as a weapon.
â¢Use genealogy to prompt memories. Genealogy is not necessarily a religious thing, but a history of the family. Even a simple family tree can set off stories. My father used to tell me about his Uncle Sam who was a fireman on a train in England, and who was killed when the train ran off a track into the Thames River. That came from a painting of my ill fated uncle we now have hanging in our house, but when that name got mentioned anytime my dad had stories about him.
â¢Traditional foods or recipes. Nothing gets someone talking faster about the past than food that they love. Why is the roast on Sunday at noon a tradition? Has the family always gone on a picnic with fried chicken on the Fourth of July? Where did that traditional pastry mom makes on Christmas come from? Talk about food and the memories will flow.
Life without parents, no matter what your age, is hard. But it is even harder when you can't recall information or have some record of their lives to pass on. What everyone does in their life is important in this world, and what they accomplished should not be forgotten.